Brigadier Jez Bennett OBE
This year’s competition was hotly contested by three very evenly matched Service teams. New event locations added a freshness to the competition that has now been in Meribel for over ten years. The first challenge to be overcome was the weather. Or to be more precise the lack of it. A severe deficit of snow meant the Snowboard Cross course that is usually run in the Moon Park needed to be moved. As it happens there is a pre-built Snowboard Cross course in Mottaret, which had just enough snow to run a Snowboard Cross event using an amended 3-person knockout format which has never been used at the ISSSC. This location also encouraged more of the sponsors to come and watch the event.
In an all RAF final it was Flight Lieutenant Paddy Morris who took the honours in the men’s race, beating Flight Lieutenant Mark Wecki into second and Corporal Josh Rathbone into third. Wing Commander Claire Collis from the RAF was dominant throughout the women’s knockout races and beat the Army’s Corporal Shonagh Kinnear and the RN’s Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Steph Ingram into second and third respectively.
The next event in the snow depleted calendar was the Parallel Slalom. Once again qualifiers were held in Mottaret (which is rapidly becoming the ISSSC home of snowboarding). The course was technically tricky and a number of competitors were caught out by some wickedly placed gates. The army looked to have strength in depth and edged the other two services to gain an extra place in the knockout final.
The parallel finals took place under the floodlights of the Stade, Meribel. In order to preserve the slope for the other disciplines the course was amended. This meant that for some parts of the race the athletes would have slightly less light than they might have liked; making sure you had the right goggles was essential! However, because the riders raced each other over two courses, swapping in between, there was no disadvantage.
The competitors put on a truly excellent display of high speed racing and both the women’s and men’s events were jubilantly cheered on by their Service colleagues and the sponsors alike. Corporal Chris Gregory from the Army rode superbly to see off a resurgent Flight Lieutenant Paddy Morris from the RAF. A dominant display from the Army women’s team made it an all Army final and Corporal Shonagh Kinnear managed to go one better than her Snowboard Cross result as she beat Major Jess Drew into second place.
So to the final event: Slope Style. The weather was glorious and the shapers at DC 43 Snowpark were able to set a good course with the little snow they had to work with. It was a close run event again in the women’s competition, with Petty Officer Lucy Ingram (RN) and Wing Commander Claire Collis showcasing why they are the top athletes in their Service: they both scored the same score in different runs! Petty Officer Ingram was just able to edge it on a count back – she was judged to be 0.66% better on her other competition run! Corporal Shonagh Kinnear (Army) was 3rd, but her superb display on the rails won her the Nelson Pratt memorial award for best trick of the competition. The men’s competition was of an outstanding standard; so much so, the Head Judge was confident that the final could be moved to a more demanding line with 12-metre gapped jumps (not for the faint-hearted!). The change in competition line delivered some top riding; the execution and amplitude of some of the tricks was eye-catching. Reigning champion Leading Air Engineer Technician Ross Taylor (RN) was in exceptional form, beating Flight Lieutenant Paddy Morris (RAF) and Able Seaman Ian Sanderson into second and third respectively. This is his fifth year in a row standing on top of the Slope Style podium (surely an ISSSC record?).
In the women’s overall individual competition both the RAF’s Wing Commander Claire Collis and Corporal Shonagh Kinnear (Army) were tied on points, but the superior result in the Snowboard Cross meant that Wing Commander Claire Collis was declared the overall champion. Petty Officer Lucy Ingram was third. In the men’s competition the RAF’s Flight Lieutenant Paddy Morris was overall champion, with Leading Air Engineer Technician Ross Taylor (RN) in second and the RAF’s Flight Lieutenant Mark Wecki was third. The UK Armed Forces Snowboard overall men’s team competition was won by the RAF and the women’s team competition was won by the Army.
Next up was the UKAF team competing at the BRITS at Laax, Switzerland. This year again provided a strong representation on the National stage from the UK Armed Forces (UKAF) Snowboard Team, made up of 11 riders; 6 men and 5 women. All team members gained considerable benefit from the coaching provided by Mr Barry Parker. It is the second year he has spent with the UKAF team and it was beneficial that he knew the standard of some team riders already. His use of video feedback both on and off the hill was very welcome. However, in this environment of extreme sport, inevitably the risk of injury increases and Corporal Josh Rathbone (RAF) broke his wrist on the last day of training. Unfortunately he could not enter any of the events, but everyone commented that his progression that week had been astounding; as a last minute reserve he was more than worthy of his place on the team.
The competitions took place during the period 4 – 7 Apr 17. As Slope Style and Snowboard Cross are both disciplines in the ISSSC, entry for all [uninjured] team members in these events was compulsory. The year’s competition saw the return of many of the UK’s current Olympic athletes in both Open and Masters’ competitions. On the day of the Slope Style competition, the weather was variable with cloud intermittently covering the course; however, the shapers and BRITS committee ensured the competition ran as smoothly as possible. The course was fairly technical (yet progressive) with three options of rails, ranging from a flat box, a box to rail and a double, staggered rail feature, followed by three consecutive jumps with choices again ranging from small, medium and large kickers. Towards the end of the course there were three further up-rails; a flat box, a raised thin box and a raised barrel. Due to favourable conditions earlier in the week, some riders had been able to hit the medium and large kicker line (12, 14 and 16 metre gap from jump to landing ramp for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd medium jumps consecutively and 18, 20 and 22 metre gap for the large line); this meant they were comfortable hitting these jumps during the competition. This was a significant step up from the size of the inter services kickers, especially for the women. It is noted that not all would be able to attempt these kickers at inter service level, but it offered a fantastic opportunity to those wanting to progress their riding to the next level.
Once again the support and praise received from the British Snowboarding community was in full force, with GB athletes and Olympians alike. They welcomed the fact that the UKAF team made up a large, happy contingent of competitors at the BRITS. The team did not disappoint with their effort, courage and results either with Able Rate Ian Sanderson taking gold in the Men’s Masters competition and Wing Commander Claire Collis, Flight Lieutenant Lou Page and Major Jess Drew taking first, second and third respectively in the Ladies Masters’ competition. Of note there were three UKAF riders selected to compete in the Super Final (6 ladies and 12 men selected overall). Unfortunately, due to cloud, the bottom half of the course was not visible to the judges so the Super Final was cancelled, but it was a great accolade for some of the team to be selected to represent at this level. The weather for Snowboard Cross was again intermittent with thick fog lingering for most of the day; nonetheless, all the races managed to keep to time, including two qualifications for each person. The course was fairly open with a large Wu-Tang to start. It was also very icy but once the snow began to warm the conditions became slightly softer with visibility coming and going. Despite the conditions the UKAF riders displayed great determination providing some encouraging results.
Snowboard Cross brought out a variety of participants including Ski Sunday’s Ed Leigh and a variety of GB squad riders. Thankfully all UKAF riders qualified highly in their respective categories, which was again testament to their patience and professionalism during less than ideal conditions. Eight of eleven UKAF personnel managed to place fifth, or better, overall; however, special mention should go to Corporal Chris Gregory who, for the second year running, managed 4th in the Men’s open category against current GB riders. Incidentally, he has since been selected to train with the GB Boarder Cross squad for the 2018 season – a fantastic achievement. Additionally, Able Rate Aaby Aldridge took the Women’s open title putting down a fantastic run in the final; another huge credit for UKAF. Of note, the entire Women’s Masters podium places were also taken by UKAF personnel.
Although not mandatory for UKAF team to enter the Big Air competition, two riders wanted to use the competition to force themselves to get more comfortable on the bigger kickers whilst they were available. Flight Lieutenant Mark Wecki (RAF) entered the Men’s Masters and attempted a double backflip off the pro-line kicker; a first for him and it required significant courage to do so! He performed exceptionally well winning the Masters category, which also gained him a place in the Super Final. Flight Lieutenant Lou Page (RAF) also entered the Women’s Masters Big Air event. Her straight air over the 12 metre kicker gained yet another gold for UKAF.
This year the UKAF team excelled both in terms of results and public engagement. It is testament to individuals’ dedication and drive to succeed that the team gained their best results on a National stage yet, whilst making the most of the opportunity to learn from the top GB riders. The team was cohesive, talented and motivated in order to achieve such success. UKAF snowboarding is soaring and pushing its own limits; credit must be paid to the coach and the supportive committee that have enabled this progression.
The committee continues to work hard to keep the season going all year around and develop pathways for the officials to run successful and safe championships. This year UKAF WSA organised a Snowboard judging course with the FIS and IOC Winter Games Snowboard Head Judge – Ola Sundekvist. The course was a healthy mix of new aspirant freestyle judges and Service officials seeking a refresher on the technicalities and procedures required to conduct competition judging. The course had a good turn out from the three Services and in total 20 people from across the Army, RAF and RN passed the exam. We were extremely grateful for the financial support provided by the single Services winter sports associations and the UKAF WSA – without this it would have been very difficult to plan and execute this course.
As with all sports, particularly in the UK Armed Forces, there will a higher turnover of athletes and officials. This year we lose one of the original founders: Wing Commander Simon Manvell. Simon was at the first Combined Services Snowboard Championships held in Megeve, in 2000. Back then we desperately tried to impress our alpine skiing colleagues with how we could do the same on a snowboard. We raced exactly the same slalom courses…sometimes varying the distances. The ‘originals’ had to go through this to establish themselves as a recognised sport: their self-sacrifice enabled the evolution into the thrilling spectacle the competition is today. Simon came onto the organising committee early on and has been a stalwart of not only UK AF Snowboard, but also as the RAF Chairman. Simon is departing the RAF and we wish him well in his future endeavours. In 2000 Simon snowboarded in a lycra racing suit…….!!
Overall this season is potentially the best yet. The quality of the Service athletes is extremely high and the level achieved in competitions, both at Service and National level, is genuinely impressive. Corporal Chris Gregory’s selection for the GB squad along with the 11 medal placings that the UKAF team earned at the BRITS, including Able Rate Aaby Aldridge’s Gold in the Open Boarder Cross race, is the ultimate testament to this. One name to watch for next season is Sapper Matty Hannah; he is an exciting enigma when it comes to Slope Style. With no fear and cat-like ability on rails he will, no doubt, offer a thrilling spectacle at 2018’s ISSSC. The move of the ISSSC Snowboard schedule to Mottaret has breathed life into a competition that was in danger of becoming stale and the organisers and resort are to be applauded in their efforts to facilitate it. We are now offering competitors and officials snowboard activity throughout the year, which will provide the continuity to develop the skills and standards of everyone even further.